FW de Klerk's Great Leap Forward revisited (I)

James Hamill writes on the reasons for the NP leader's transformational 2 February 1990 speech

It is now thirty years since F W de Klerk’s speech on 2 February 1990, a genuinely transformational moment in South African history. His 35-minute address before the Cape Town parliament legalised the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), after three decades as proscribed organisations, and unbanned the South African Communist Party (SACP) after 40 years of illegality.

The address also committed the government to the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela (which duly occurred nine days later on 11 February 1990), to the repeal of apartheid legislation, and to the commencement of multi-party negotiations on a new post-apartheid constitution.

‘Walk through the open door’ to the negotiating table was De Klerk’s invitation to the leadership of the previously banned organisations. De Klerk also extended an olive branch to the front-line states of southern Africa, who had been targeted by former President P W Botha’s militaristic policy of destabilisation, by declaring that ‘the season of violence is over, the time for reconstruction and reconciliation has arrived.’[1]

The speech signposted the way to an era of negotiations and, beyond that, to a post-apartheid democratic future even if, at that stage, there were substantial differences between the government and its principal opponent, the ANC, as to the nature of that new South Africa. This article – the first in a two-part assessment of the events of February 1990 - considers the background to the speech, the expectations which existed in advance of it, and the response to it before considering the principal internal drivers which made it possible. A second article will discuss the external environment, in particular the role played by the convulsions in Eastern Europe, the visible disintegration of communism in the Soviet Union itself, as well as the impact of sanctions and the broader anti-apartheid campaign.

The Pre-Speech Expectations

The state opening of parliament on 2 February 1990 was F W De Klerk’s first major opportunity as State President to put his own stamp on the country’s politics and to set its course for the next five years. Expectations were mixed in advance of the speech with some commentators identifying a new and positive trajectory under De Klerk’s leadership, which they felt the speech was likely to consolidate, while others, with more limited expectations, were inclined to accentuate De Klerk’s cautious, conservative and, at times, even reactionary track record.

Those anticipating the much-vaunted ‘quantum leap’ from De Klerk were encouraged by the programme of liberalisation - the so-called ‘Pretoriastroika’ - he had pursued since becoming State President in September 1989. This included a more relaxed and tolerant approach to opposition demonstrations previously banned under emergency regulations (including a huge, in effect ANC, rally in Cape Town in September 1989), despite the concern of the securocrats in the Cabinet that this might signal weakness; the release of long-term ANC political prisoners in October 1989 such as the 1963-4 Rivonia trialists Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Ray Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada and Walter Sisulu which confirmed Mandela’s own release was now only a question of timing; the scaling down of the powers of the military and of militarized structures which had been such a defining feature of South African politics in the Botha era[2]; and a more emollient language of co-operation and partnership towards neighbouring states which would come to be known as the ‘New Diplomacy’.

Equally, there was no shortage of sceptics about De Klerk and there was an unwillingness to see in him a genuine reformer, still less a born-again democrat. In some sections of the broader mass movement against apartheid, the hype before 2 February 1990 conjured up unpleasant memories of Botha’s ill-fated ‘Rubicon’ speech in August 1985 which was trailed in advance as a decisive moment in the reform process, but which proved to be a disaster.

Botha’s aggressive style played well before the National Party (NP) faithful in the hall but his resistance to fundamental change alienated global and business opinion, caused the collapse of the rand, led to the suspension of trading on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and a refusal by the banks to roll over South Africa’s debt. ‘Rubicon’ was a sobering experience and it generated a deep-seated scepticism among many South Africans about all subsequent speeches from the South African leadership. There was a reluctance to accept that any NP leader was capable of delivering democratic change as opposed to ‘managed reform’.

Moreover, there seemed to be particularly good reasons for questioning De Klerk’s credentials. After becoming NP leader in February 1989, De Klerk had consistently opposed the idea of legalising and negotiating with the banned ANC on the grounds that ‘we don’t negotiate with perpetrators of violence.’ [3] Indeed, during the September 1989 election campaign he had had used the liberal Democratic Party’s support for such negotiations as a stick with which to beat it.

Also, in the February 1989 NP leadership contest following Botha’s resignation as party leader, De Klerk had been viewed as the most conservative of the four candidates – and with good reason. In his spells as Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Education, the leader of the white chamber in parliament, and as leader of the NP in the Transvaal, he had acquired an illiberal reputation as a politician who consistently sought to place the most conservative interpretation on any proposed reforms.

This included being an outright opponent of – or, at the very least, being highly sceptical of – integrated sport, trade union rights for black workers, and the repeal of sexual apartheid legislation, as well as being a strong advocate of segregated education and racially demarcated residential areas. As Minister of Education he opposed the entry of black students into traditional ‘white universities’ and pressured universities to crack down on anti-apartheid political unrest on pain of financial penalties.

In his 11 years in government, from 1978 to 1989, it was difficult to identify any specific reformist measures with which he could be clearly associated. The accumulated evidence from his time in front-line politics seemed to support the view of the new State President’s brother, Willem De Klerk, whose politics were of a more liberal persuasion.

He suggested that nothing very radical should be expected of De Klerk as he was too strongly committed to ‘group rights’ - code for a racially based political system - and was reluctant to move too far ahead of his own white constituency. Instead, some modest tinkering and a cautious managerialism looked to be the order of the day.[4] This conveyed an image of De Klerk as a rather dull and unimaginative NP apparatchik, hardly an inspiring response to South Africa’s grave political and economic crisis.

The views of those in the liberation struggle were equally downbeat. When De Klerk secured the leadership of the NP in February 1989, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said he would be ‘very surprised if we don’t see an intensification of the repression’. The United Democratic Front, the leading internal opponent of apartheid, viewed him as a weak leader incapable of change and the ANC in exile stated that ‘there’s not going to be any change…the one taking over from Botha is more of a hardliner, and we suspect from the start he will maintain Botha’s policies’, before adding gloomily that South Africa was ‘heading for a very bad time.’[5]

The ANC was not alone in reaching such sombre conclusions. Robert Rotberg, an American specialist on Africa, argued in March 1989 that De Klerk’s record did not support the view that he ‘would release jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela and start negotiating a transfer of power to, or even a sharing of power with, blacks.‘[6] On the day before the speech, Patti Waldmeir, the South Africa correspondent for The Financial Times, told readers that De Klerk’s speech would almost certainly disappoint those expecting far-reaching change such as the legalisation of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela. [7]

All of this pessimism and scepticism was completely blown away by the speech actually delivered on 2 February 1990 in which De Klerk committed his government to nothing less than the abandonment of the white monopoly on political power, repudiated the ideological direction taken since 1948 and effectively pronounced the death sentence on apartheid. The ANC was unbanned without a cessation of its armed struggle and the SACP was legalised despite differences of opinion within the government on that question.

De Klerk said the speech was aimed at creating ‘a new and just constitutional dispensation in which every inhabitant will enjoy equal rights, treatment and opportunity in every sphere of endeavour – constitutional, social and economic.‘ [8] Such language would have been inconceivable in any speech delivered by his five apartheid predecessors: Malan, Strijdom, Verwoerd, Vorster or Botha. De Klerk had also learned all the appropriate lessons from Botha’s Rubicon calamity.

He had not raised expectations significantly in advance, there were no major leaks, he adopted a conciliatory rather than belligerent manner, and he had sprung a complete surprise.[9] Whether De Klerk always intended to deliver such a blockbuster speech remains a matter of debate. He argued that by doing it all in one address he had seized the moral high ground and established a reservoir of global goodwill which a more incremental approach could not have done.

Others argue that De Klerk had originally intended to roll out his changes more gradually, beginning with Mandela’s release before moving to the legalisation of the ANC, but this met with the formidable barrier of Nelson Mandela himself who argued he needed a political home to operate within on his release. Rather than risk the many problems generated by an uncooperative Mandela, the government gave way on this point.[10]

Responses to the speech

Such a far-reaching speech inevitably caused tremors right across the political spectrum. The ANC was caught completely off balance as it had not expected such a substantial speech and there was now considerable disarray inside the organisation. Its official response acknowledged that the speech ‘went a long way to creating a climate conducive to negotiations ‘although it expressed its opposition to the continued State of Emergency, repressive security legislation and the government’s definition of precisely who constituted a ‘political prisoner’ and who did not.[11]

A liberation stalwart such as Walter Sisulu felt able to declare that ‘victory is in sight’ while, contrastingly, Winnie Mandela described the speech as ‘a bone with no meat.’[12] The PAC’s response confirmed that it was destined for the political margins when it rather absurdly dismissed the speech as ‘irrelevant and meaningless.’

The white right’s response was predictably vitriolic with the speech viewed as a capitulation, a betrayal, and the logical culmination of years of ‘reform’ which they had always warned would place South Africa inexorably on the path to majority rule.[13] Where the apartheid right had a legitimate grievance was its claim that De Klerk had no electoral mandate for such changes as he had campaigned in the 1989 election specifically on a platform of not talking to the ANC. The accusation of the pro-apartheid Conservative Party (CP) that these changes had been smuggled past the electorate would be a millstone around De Klerk’s neck for the next two years until the white referendum of March 1992 finally lanced the right-wing boil and gave him an unambiguous mandate for change.

Internationally, De Klerk was lauded for his courage and his speech received a positive response across the board. This was the most successful speech ever delivered by a South African leader - although the bar had not been set particularly high in that regard- and was the speech other governments had hoped to hear from Botha in 1985.

The speech was warmly welcomed by Britain the US, the Commonwealth, African states and even the Soviet Union. What this would mean for sanctions was less clear. Clearly the speech had killed off the idea of any new sanctions being imposed but there were differences between Britain on one hand and the Commonwealth, the ANC and African states on the other about the timescale for the removal of existing sanctions.

The internal drivers for change

Why did De Klerk opt for this great leap forward? It was the late South African political scientist, Lawrence Schlemmer, who warned of the dangers of ‘single factor freaks’ and the ‘great simplifiers’ when seeking to explain events of this kind. Great watershed moments are invariably the product of myriad factors and February 1990 is no exception to that rule.

That said, and at the risk of at least partly contradicting Schlemmer, there is one over-arching explanation for De Klerk’s break with the past. Put simply, apartheid had failed, was ideologically exhausted, and held out no prospect whatever of stabilising the country. By 1989 this failure was widely, if not yet universally, acknowledged across the central pillars of Afrikanerdom: the intelligentsia in the universities, the various branches of the Dutch Reformed Church and the Broederbond.

The same three institutions which had originally given intellectual substance and vitality to apartheid doctrine were now playing a leading role in the discussion about the shape and character of a new post-apartheid political system. Apartheid in all its forms – traditional baaskap, Verwoerdian separate development, or Botha’s reform model – was considered not merely unworkable but a recipe for disaster guaranteeing a decent into the abyss. This reality was captured perfectly by Allister Sparks in his summary of the situation just two days after De Klerk’s address:

‘Why has he done it? Primarily because the new emperor inherited a throne but no clothes. By the time he came to power, the apartheid ideology, which has fuelled the ruling Afrikaner National Party for nearly half a century was as dead as communism in Eastern Europe, its separate development programme demonstrably impracticable, its faith as a civil religion derelict and its economic results dragging the country towards ruin. While the revolt and state of emergency of the mid-1980s demonstrated that the government could repress any black uprising that might arise, they demonstrated too that the cost of doing so would become increasingly unacceptable and that the government would never be able to restore stability as long as the black majority remained alienated. ‘ [14]

De Klerk’s response to this was essentially technocratic rather than moralistic. His view was that apartheid had led the country into a dead-end street ‘and held no prospect whatsoever of bringing about a just and workable solution.’ [15] While change was hardly risk free, a failure to change would invite disaster and revolution and ‘everything we do, we do to avoid revolution.’[16] More of the same invited greater internal upheaval and ever deepening international isolation and was therefore not a rational option. So there was no Damascene conversion here, simply a pragmatic rendezvous with reality.[17]

De Klerk realised that whites were a diminishing proportion of the population and there was no single region of the country where they formed a majority.[18] Thus the task was to engineer a soft landing for the white minority through a negotiated transition to a new dispensation within which he hoped whites in general and the NP in particular would still retain substantial leverage.

But this was a major gamble on De Klerk’s part as February 1990 meant that the nettle of black political rights was finally being grasped and, in negotiating with the genuine representatives of the black majority rather than hand-picked ‘moderates’, the risk of the process gaining its own momentum and moving beyond his control was ever present.

Apartheid proved unworkable for a wide variety of reasons. It was economically irrational, bureaucratically cumbersome, and it moved firmly against the tide of post-war international opinion. Most crucially, it foolishly sought to govern the country without the consent of the majority of its people or their participation in the central political system. Instead, successive NP administrations deluded themselves that black political rights were accommodated in the various ethnic bantustans, a top down, imposed ‘solution’ to which the majority never consented.

Ultimately, that majority made apartheid unworkable through various forms of resistance which peaked in the internal uprising of the mid to late 1980s – the most sustained uprising in South African history - triggered in 1984 by the formal introduction of the new tricameral Constitution. This innovation, incorporating the Coloured and Indian minority communities but excluding the majority black population – surely the definitive example of Hamlet without the Prince? - was designed to stabilise the country but delivered precisely the opposite, yet another example of the way in which the attempted reform of authoritarian systems invariably generates unintended consequences.

Through that uprising the black majority was making three points explicit: namely, that it was a majority, that it would choose its own political leaders, and that it would no longer have constitutional structures foisted upon it. That uprising accelerated economic decline, deterred investment, gave added momentum to the international sanctions’ bandwagon, and fully delegitimised the apartheid state. P W Botha was essentially marking time in the face of that challenge and was eventually thrown back onto the old techniques of crisis management and brute force which reform had been designed to move South Africa beyond.

This was evident in the emergence of Latin American style death squads within the army and police as the security forces increasingly operated beyond the law in attempting to crush the revolt, something the political leadership had sanctioned but for which it would subsequently, and rather shamelessly, seek to avoid taking direct responsibility. [19]

By 1989 South Africa was in the grip of a ‘bitter and unproductive stalemate’[20]desperately hoping for something or someone to turn up. Consequently, as it reached its nadir, few countries in the world were spoken about with such a sense of gloom and foreboding, a point reflected in the academic literature of the time where titles such as Can South Africa Survive?, Apartheid In Crisis and South Africa In Crisis became the norm.

The importance of De Klerk

This was the grim situation De Klerk inherited on becoming NP leader in February 1989 , Acting State President in August 1989, when Botha’s fingers were finally prised from office, and State President in September 1989. While De Klerk undoubtedly found himself in the grip of underlying structural and historical forces – with black resistance making white minority rule completely untenable – February 1990 nonetheless reminds us of the continuing importance of the individual in helping to shape the destiny of nations.

One does not have to buy into simplistic notions of the ‘great man’ theory of history to acknowledge that the history of South Africa in the 1990s would have been markedly different had Botha not suffered a stroke in January 1989 and had remained in office with De Klerk a relatively marginal figure.

Although Botha’s government had initiated secret contacts with Mandela in prison from November 1985, and subsequently in November 1987 with the ANC in exile[21], he was disinclined to follow this process through to its logical conclusion - as De Klerk would on 2 February 1990 – for a number of reasons: his ingrained antipathy to African nationalism, his fear of the ANC’s vast support, his hostility to the ANC’s ally, the SACP, his belief the security forces could hold the line, and his political parochialism which made him reluctant to do anything which might hand a propaganda advantage to Andries Treurnicht and his pro-apartheid CP.

However, on becoming State President in September 1989 and learning the full details of the secret discussions with Mandela and the ANC, De Klerk chose to act decisively pointing to significant differences between the two men in terms of vision, imagination, intelligence and political acumen. While it is tempting to dismiss De Klerk as merely reading the writing on the wall correctly, and of being a facilitator who decided to swim with the tide of history rather than against it, that seriously underestimates his contribution.

Many leaders around the world have failed to read the writing on the wall in similar circumstances and their ineptitude and viciousness has plunged their countries into devastating conflict from which they may never recover, Bashar al-Assad in Syria being the most notable in recent times. What would the people of Syria have given for an F W De Klerk in 2011? Steering South Africa away from its own ‘great Armageddon’ [22] was an achievement on a grand scale for which De Klerk deserves to be remembered as a great South African.

He also sits naturally in a group of leaders - De Gaulle, Nixon and Begin are other prominent examples - who were able to make a historic break with the past precisely because they had impeccable conservative credentials and were therefore trusted to safeguard the interests of a sceptical constituency in a way a more liberal figure would not have been.

None of this is to dismiss his flaws. Both his infamous description of apartheid as an ‘honourable vision of justice’ which went wrong and his defence of the principle of ethnic ‘nation states’ are pure sophistry and unworthy of him but they do not eclipse the magnitude of his broader achievement.

De Klerk always argued that he was not in the business of surrender and he believed a window of opportunity had opened – one which would eventually close given the demographic realities – allowing the NP to change from a position of relative strength and to shape the post-apartheid society to come.

He was also conscious of the need to reach an accommodation with the older generation of ANC leaders who appeared pragmatic and essentially reasonable - and had the authority to bring the ANC’s huge support base with them - before they left the stage to be replaced by a more militant generation which had cut its political teeth at Soweto in 1976 or in the uprisings of the mid-1980s.

In his reflections on the speech, De Klerk often talked about learning the lessons of Rhodesia and the failure of the white minority regime there to change from such a position of strength. Consequently, as its negotiating position eroded, it was forced into too many concessions, something he was determined to avoid in South Africa.[23]

That position would unravel quite swiftly, however, as events demonstrated that De Klerk had hopelessly overestimated his government’s capacity to manage the transition and to square the circle of meeting the expectations of the black majority and the international community for fundamental change while maintaining a firm white hand on the tiller.

The transformed political environment created by February 1990 unleashed forces which eventually overwhelmed the NP and, consequently, despite De Klerk’s claim that the various negotiated agreements had met his main objectives[24] , both the Interim Constitution of November 1993, and the final Constitution of June 1996, fell significantly short of the highly complex, power-sharing, proposals which the NP had unveiled in September 1991. [25]

Although internal dynamics were the principal engines of change, external factors also weighed heavily on De Klerk’s deliberations and, to some extent, the two became interwoven. Just how important those external factors were is an issue which continues to provoke considerable debate and they will be the focus of discussion in the second article on February 1990.

The second article in this two part series can be read here


[1] ‘Walk through the door, and let us talk’, Full text of F W De Klerk’s speech on 2 February 1990, The Independent,3 February 1990

[2] Patti Waldmeir, ‘Unthinkable starts to look inevitable’, Financial Times, 28 December 1989

[3] ‘The shape of things to come’ African Concord, 18 February 1989

[4] Allister Sparks, ‘How Nelson Mandela called all the shots’, The Observer, 4 February 1990

[5] ‘The shape of things to come’, African Concord, 18 February 1989

[6] Robert Rotberg, Is De Klerk Just What South Africa Needs?’, Christian Science Monitor, 9 March 1989

[7] Patti Waldmeir, ‘De Klerk address expected to avoid Mandela release’, Financial Times, 1 February 1990

[8] The Independent, 3 February 1990

[9] John Carlin ‘Bullying Botha’s ghost is exorcised’, The Independent, 3 February 1990

[10] Allister Sparks, ‘How Nelson Mandela called all the shots’, The Observer, 4 February 1990  

[11] ‘Qualified welcome from black leaders’, The Independent, 3 February 1990

[12] John Carlin, ‘Watershed for South Africa as De Klerk lifts ANC ban’, The Independent, 3 February 1990

[13] Ibid

[14] Allister Sparks, ‘How Nelson Mandela called all the shots’, The Observer, 4 February 1990

[15] F W De Klerk, ‘Why I did It’, Politicsweb, 3 February 2010

[16] ‘De Klerk aimed reforms at “avoiding revolution”’, The Guardian, 5 February 1990

[17] Stephen Glover and Cal McCrystal, ‘Convert on the long trek’, The Independent on Sunday, 28 April 1991

[18] J. E. Spence, ‘The tightrope De Klerk is balanced upon’, The Daily Telegraph, 19 February 1990

[19] ‘Ambiguity’s path to murder’, The Economist, 16 October 1997

[20] J.E.Spence, ‘The tightrope De Klerk is balanced upon’, The Daily Telegraph, 19 February 1990

[21] For a fuller discussion of these secret government-ANC contacts see Niel Barnard, Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy Boss (Tafelberg, 2015) and Allister Sparks Tomorrow Is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Negotiated Revolution (Mandarin, 1996)

[22] Patti Waldmeir, ‘The road away from Armageddon’, Financial Times, 12 February 1990

[23] Ibid

[24] F W De Klerk, ‘Why I did it’, Politicsweb, 3 February 2010

[25] James Hamill, ‘A Disguised Surrender: South Africa and the politics of conflict resolution’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, Vol. 14, 3, 2003